Eat it Like a Local: Cobra Snake
“You have two options; a whole snake for fifty dollars, or half a snake for twenty five dollars” the old woman says, “For fifty, I gut a live snake in front of you and pour its blood into a shot glass. Then you eat the heart while its still beating! Its very good for you!”
We looked at each other stunned. But not so stunned. I knew this. I demanded we go to the snake restaurant in Hanoi. I ordered my friends to feel the freedom of “off-the beaten path” adventure, I would convince our triad to indulge in Cobra together, to get the trip started off right. I tasted grilled garden snake in Burma, and it was delicious. Vietnamese snake meat was world famous or at least—- in the Mekong Sub region.
My persistence led us to a lair of potions and jars filled with creatures associated with vermin, waste management, and witches spells.
Andy spoke defiantly, “I don’t eat reptiles, or the devils spawn,” he proclaimed with arms folded.
“It’s delicious, and a great experience!” I chided, as if encouraging him to eat a bug in front of a group of peers on the school playground. “ Andy, don’t be lame, it will be really cool to do it together.”
It depends on your definition of “cool.” This is the eating crushed up ribs and spine followed by a shot of a snake seeped in moonshine kind of cool.
“Are you going to eat it, for real?” I asked.
“Well, are you going to eat it?” she replied.
The owner of the restaurant, a small tired Vietnamese woman in her fifties reassured us, “Dont worry, the venom is not dangerous if it goes in your stomach, only if it gets in your blood stream.”
I’ve never consciously lurched towards illness, but I’ve eaten a number of odd meats abroad, , snake in Burma, bugs in Thailand, dog in Korea. We came this far. I wanted to live to tell the tale of eating cobra.
She let the snake wriggle in her hands.We decided we only wanted half a snake. Sans blood. Sans the still palpitating heart. Sans the potential for mass slaughter and half alive wriggling body parts on the sidewalk.
Lucky for us, she just happened to have half a cobra in the freezer.
The meat appeared limp and gray, like mackerel that rots in the sun. It smelled like the alligator farms of Bangkok, and the shape made clear that it once was a legless, carnivourous serpent.
After what seemed like an hour of mincing, chopping and filleting, punctuated by the occasional shout from the kitchen, “I’m pulling out the intestines, would you like to taste the nerves now?” The woman brought out three small dishes. They included spring roll, snake cake, and snake patty.
Intimidated. Trying each piece with trepidation, and a huge smile, we listened, blindly stuffing our mouths. The owner kept close watch to see how much we were enjoying it (or faking it) and began telling stories, about the snake community before the Vietnam War. As a young girl, she was the fastest to scale trees and catch the snakes so she could earn money for her family. Later, she learned to cook snake and serve them in many different dishes and spices., She refused to give the recipe, but talked about how Cobra is a favorite of locals who will eat the snake for virility and energy. Cobra meat is said to be an aphrodisiac, and people who eat the meat or drink the whiskey are believed to take on the snake spirit. Prior to the War, commoners and aristocrats could enjoy the protein of a snake for dinner. Nowadays most snake traditions, especially Cobra eating, is only for the very rich.
Reminiscing on her balcony, she pointed to the new apartment building that replaced her jungle trees, illustrious of the dying traditions being replaced by the New Hanoi.
We fell cautious and quiet, aware of our power and subjectivity as travelers. Feigning a smile with every bite, we showed respect for the tradition.
If I didn’t know it was Cobra, maybe it would taste good. Yet, the gnashing of bones, and the acrid metallic meat made me feel queasy. Kelly, braver than I, downed the whiskey and the snake spring roll as if it were a 99 baht Dim Sum buffet.
Still, I could not get the taste of spine out of my mouth. In a last ditch effort to enjoy the experience and not offend our hosts, I stored the snake in my cheeks like a cartoon character. I thought I could pretend it didn’t exist, and spit them out later, but everyone knew my game. The owner asked if I was healthy and if I was swelling up for some odd reason. I stuffed another mouthful in and said “Delicious!” in broken Vietnamese, smiling with meat clinging to my teeth.
After we snapped pictures and toasted new friendships, I walked out of the restaurant with two pockets of snake lodged in my cheeks.
I get to eat a pumping heart for $50! Done and done. Seriously, I’ve never been so excited to eat something in my life. At a point where I thought I’d tried it all, eating snake heart felt like a final frontier that was my inevitable destiny. Unfortunately, I was put off by the price, once I found out it would be two people splitting the cost instead of three. I wasn’t sure what snake hearts went for, but I knew it couldn’t be what is more than a month’s rent for some people. Thus in the interest of practicality, we decided to only try half a snake, which included 3 small dishes and 2 shots of snake whiskey. Honestly, without the pumping heart in play anymore, I was a little less than enthused. But we had come all the way to the “snake village,” far outside the city, so I figure I should at least try it.
I constantly plied the grandmother who was cooking with questions, via her young son. “What is she doing now?” “Does snake take a long time to cook?” “Has she ever been bitten by a snake?” “Really! How many times?” Grandmother grinned, obviously used to such questions, and showed me marks on her arm, presumably snake bites. The son explained that growing up around snakes, she has been bitten so many times that the venom is less deadly to her now. But she is still careful because a bite can make her very sick, even if it is not fatal.
After about 30 minutes, the snake had been prepared, and was ready to eat. The meal began with grandmother pouring 2 shots of snake whiskey, one for me and one for Natalie. Additionally, I asked for a beer to wash down our meal with. I actually thought the snake whiskey was pretty good. Being from the state of Georgia and having lived in Thailand over a year, I have experienced moonshine across continents. The snake whiskey was much smoother than I expected, but still retained all the kick of moonshine. Not to brag, but I swallowed mine like a champ. Others who shall not be named, did not even finish theirs, and the little they did drink, was consumed in tiny amounts.
As far as the actual food, it was OK. Not terrible, not great, just OK. Snake tastes better than I expected, but is very gamey, so not very delicious to me. The experience was definitely more profound than the meal. Still if you’re ever in northern Vietnam, and have the opportunity to eat the heart of a snake, take advantage of it, no matter the cost. It may end up being a choice you’ll always regret if you don’t.
If you do plan on trying Cobra, make sure you go to a legitimate place where locals eat it. Some people have been drugged at so-called snake restaurants or much worse.. In two cases in Thailand, tourists have died drinking tainted snake whiskey and alleged snake meat. One cobra contains enough neurotoxins to kill twenty people. Only trained elders and “snake families” know how to take out the venom so it is no longer poisonous. Research your restaurant carefully. Cooking Cobra and other poisonous snakes is passed down through generations. Make sure you ask a lot of questions, and understand how it is being prepared, and especially know the risk your taking.
Cobra meat is expensive, but snake alcohol is cheaper and common. Marketed as a tool to get tourists drunk, one runs into variations of snake whiskey in bottles all over South East Asia. You may see the whiskey with a rat, scorpion, or giant beetle inside. It is submerged in a brown-yellow liquid, with each bottle believed to have its own medicinal benefits and spirit properties. The bottles are legit. Those are real animals inside the bottle, and people in Laos and Vietnam catch the snakes, place them in bottles with inexpensive rice alcohol and sell them for about three dollars to unsuspecting tourists. If you do choose to buy it, make sure you realize that customs is going to take that away, then proceed to severely question you about your enthusiasm for Southeast Asian wildlife.
We want to try new things on the road, boldly, but sometimes we don’t think it through. Stuck eating fish congee to settle my stomach for the rest of the trip, I earned my gastronomic badge of consuming the exotic.
The badge, and the Cobra-eating “tale”, were not the highlight. Spending time with the owner, and hearing her stories about a serene Hanoi, an old snake village, and her experience as a woman preserving tradition made the experience. Her story made us hopeful for the journey ahead, and ready to experience a rapidly changing Vietnam.
“I’m glad I did it, partly because it was worth it, but mostly because I shall never have to do it again”-Mark Twain